Ashley Bunnell has worked long and hard for her country, her family and her education. As an advocate and social worker in the making, she's working just as hard for her fellow veterans.
As told to Abby Webb, '18
Most 16-year-olds are concerned with getting their driver’s license, hanging out with their friends on Friday nights, maybe working an after-school job. At 16, my life was far from typical. I was emancipated as a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence, dropping out of high school, getting my GED and enlisting in the military because I was out of options.
While in the military, I could only take one or two classes at a time because I couldn’t afford to do more. I started going full time in 2012, pursuing a degree in nursing. I was working at the VA hospital in Fort Bragg, N.C., as a certified nursing assistant when I discovered my passion. I was concerned with helping the patients feel heard and listened to. It didn’t sit right with me to watch them have hardly any human interaction, get discharged abruptly and have no home to go to. I was calling churches, trying to find help for the discharged veterans; I didn’t realize at the time that that was social work.
People always say you need to fight for others, but sometimes the right thing to do is to empower them to fight for themselves.
Ashley Bunnell, '18
I had just received a letter of acceptance into an upper-division nursing school program when we got the orders to move from Fort Bragg. There were three options, one of them being Fort Jackson. I was very upset with the move, but the good thing about it was the opportunity to attend the University of South Carolina.
Fast forward to now. I am a wife, a mother, a fulltime student, a veteran, an advocate and a survivor. I work mainly in advocacy for the Student Veteran Association here on campus. SVA builds camaraderie and helps with academic achievement — basically a support group for military-connected students. In addition, I’m a founding board member of the My Carolina Veterans Alumni Council. In this role, I do more community engagement. I go out to the military affairs committee through the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and act as a bridge between them and the university, communicating how we could get involved in the community, and vice versa. In the future, we’re hoping to start some mentor programs for younger veterans or ROTC members, with more seasoned, accomplished alumni.
After 10 long years of grinding, I’ll graduate in May with a degree in social work. The next step is graduate school to earn a master’s degree in social work. From there, the end game is to work in a VA hospital, advocating for those men and women who have gone so far out of their way to serve their country.
I hope that after I leave USC, the SVA and Veterans Alumni Council continue to grow and spread awareness. I want my legacy to be about not only standing up for myself, but standing up for others and inviting them to sit at the table to talk for themselves. People always say you need to fight for others, but sometimes the right thing to do is empower them to fight for themselves.